Wartime home entertainment

Put it up in lights! This is the endearingly-scribbled wartime programme for one of James Skinner's concept parties - a surprising variety of acts for one young lad!

Put it up in lights! This is the endearingly-scribbled wartime programme for one of James Skinner’s concept parties – a surprising variety of acts for one young lad!

Maybe the theatre was in my blood, or maybe I was inspired by the antics of Richmal Crompton’s ‘William’. Whatever the reason, I began staging ‘one-man shows’ at the ripe old age of 12. It was early in the Second World War, and I decided we needed escapism in the form of home entertainments. I took over my father’s garden shed as the most convenient venue for my entry into show business.

Helped by a friend who lived nearby, I set up a Saturday matinee as a trial venture, although with the complete confidence of youth I never doubted its success. Advance publicity was spread to neighbourhood children by word of mouth and when, on the day, a queue started to form in the alleyway leading to our back gate, I knew we were on to a winner.

Dad’s shed had been tidied up, but it was still fairly full of garden tools, bags of sand, cement and large pots of paint -which made ideal seats. The floor at the back end was a step higher than the front, so it became the stage, and a green curtain hung on a length of wire separated me from the audience. I had nailed a plank of wood above the door, and painted, in bright red, ‘Regal Shed’ (named after one of our local cinemas).

As I was to provide all the
entertainment, my friend assumed the role of doorman, collecting the admission money of a penny each, and showing the customers to their seats. As it wasn’t very professional to come through the curtain (there wasn’t room anyway) he shut the door and went round to a side window to tell me everyone was in.

The programme (which I had hand-written on some fancy cards discovered in a local printer’s bin) consisted of about six items, and naturally I used a different name for each act. There were card tricks by ‘Marvo the Card Wizard’ and conjuring, learned from the book ‘Modern Conjuring’ (which I’d bought at Woolworth’s for 6d) by ‘Jack Hall’. There were jokes by comedian ‘Gus Bennett’, taken from a ‘Laurel & Hardy Fun Book’ presented free with ‘Film Fun’ comic, and ‘Terry Barker’ played the harmonica (this looked better than ‘mouth organ’ on the programme), and, in a second spot, the accordion (really a melodeon bought at a garden fete for 5/-).

My piece de resistance was an attempted impersonation of Jack Warner, who was on the wireless every Saturday night in ‘Garrison Theatre’. Blissfully unaware of copyright laws, I recited his poem ‘Frank’s Tank’ and read two of his famous ‘blue pencil’ letters – found in a ‘Garrison Theatre’ songbook published at the time.

During the interval we had a raffle (always popular, and a certain money-spinner) for the grand prize of a threepenny bit! Tickets were a mere halfpenny.

My mother prepared a tray of glasses of lemonade made from a penny packet of ‘fizzy tablets’, which my assistant handed out free to encourage ticket sales.

The performance over, we eagerly counted the takings, then rushed to Woolworth’s before closing time to buy some penny lead soldiers to add to our collections.

After staging a few more shows in the shed, we needed to expand as audiences were increasing – well, at least by one or two – so I persuaded my mother (who always encouraged us in our artistic endeavours) to let me ‘borrow’ our back bedroom for future events. This was a luxury both for me and the audience. Of course the patrons had to troop through the house to get upstairs (the lemonade was carried up carefully) and my mother was most understanding.

Our final show was in 1943, and then I graduated into the ‘big-time’, going ‘on the road’ with a conjuring and comedy show, with a cast of six, and performing at youth clubs, gang shows and garden fetes.

Now, more than half a century later, I occasionally tread the boards in a modern theatre, but still retain fond memories of my humble beginnings in the ‘Regal Shed’ which, happily, still stands!

James Skinner